Government agencies in Washington and Oregon are ramping up efforts to clean beaches littered with marine debris, as material washed out to sea during last year's tsunami in Japan reaches the Pacific coast.

Washington Governor Chris Gregoire has put the state’s top military officer in charge of the operation.  Three crews, each made of six people, began combing beaches this week and the Department of Health is screening debris for signs of radioactivity. 

No unusual readings have been found and Gregoire says none are expected. But she says while the West Coast is "in for a steady dribble of tsunami debris over the next few years," the state isn’t waiting to act.

Approximately 1.5 million tonnes of debris from the tsunami in Japan is believed to be drifting towards the West Coast.

"Both the United States federal government and the Canadian federal government are going to have to put some resources on the ground," Gregoire told CBC News.

Costly invasion

The urgency can be traced to the surprise arrival of a 20-metre dock on an Oregon beach in early June. The tides dumped the concrete and steel platform on a picturesque beach in Newport, 15 months after it was ripped from its moorings in Japan, nearly 9,000 kilometres away.

John Chapman, an invasion ecologist at Oregon State University says it was coated with almost two tonnes of marine life — some of it foreign — including mussels, algae and a voracious species of sea star.

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Asterias amurensis, an invasive species of sea star, was found aboard a Japanese dock in Oregon. (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

"The potential for harm on our coasts, economic harm beyond just ecological harm, are significant," Chapman said as he examined the beached dock.

Specimens are being carefully studied. But Chapman likened the dock to a dirty needle, stuck in the arm of the region’s ecosystem, threatening the West Coast's $80-million oyster industry.

"We should react to this, we shouldn't be passive", Chapman said.

Clamouring for action

That’s what Mark Mead has been saying for months. He regularly combs the beach by his house near Warrenton, Ore., 125 kilometres northwest of Portland. Bags filled with ocean-borne bits of polystyrene, foam insulation and plastic bottles which appear to be from Japan are piled beside his house.

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Mark Mead has been collecting bags of tsunami debris, including foam insulation and bottles. (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

"They're working on plans, but their plans are getting to be too late,"  Mead says about state and federal authorities.

"The agencies don't want to deal with picking it up," he complains. "They want you to report things to their website, but that doesn't clean up the mess."

The Japanese dock has brought focus to the problem, according to Chris Havel, who speaks for Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department.

"You always think you have more time than you do. We set our schedule based on guesses and predictions, the ocean sets its schedule based on reality and facts," he says with chuckle.

But the dock is no laughing matter for the state, which is now on the hook for more than $85,000 to have it dismantled and hauled away. The disposal bill will gut the department’s budget for dealing with tsunami debris, but Havel says they’re escalating plans to install tsunami trash dumpsters and distribute disposal bags.

Havel adds it would be far less costly if large debris could be detected at sea. 

Needles in a haystack

But the lead federal agency in charge of tracking it is effectively blind.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has only a handful of people dedicated to the problem.  Out of its $4.6-million budget for marine debris, just a little over $600,000 is dedicated to the cleanup of Japanese marine material. 

Two years ago during the height of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the agency’s "war room" at its Seattle headquarters was buzzing with activity. Today it’s silent and empty.

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Doug Helton in the war room of NOAA's Seattle headquarters. (Curt Petrovich/CBC)

"We had a lot of focus on that disaster,"  says Doug Helton, operations co-ordinator for NOAA’s office of response and restoration. "This one’s a little more slow moving, but we’re certainly paying attention."

But Helton explains there’s only so much they can do. The agency has no access to high resolution military satellites. It relies on computer models and visual sightings of debris by ships and aircraft.  It missed spotting the 130-tonne dock in the Pacific Ocean.

"If the Pacific Ocean was the size of a soccer field,"  Helton says. "The vessel would have been the size of a human hair, so we're literally looking for needles in a hay stack. The scale is unprecedented for us. We're talking about an area that’s three or four times the size of the continental United States."

Helton says while NOAA is a clearing house of information, local communities and volunteers will shoulder the cleanup.

Despite the limitations, British Columbia is relying on NOAA to inform its tsunami debris response. A provincial government handout advises people to report discoveries directly to the U.S. agency.

M. Sanjayan, lead scientist with the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, says NOAA may be underestimating the impact. While walking along a Vancouver beach recently, Sanjayan applauded scientists at the cash-strapped agency.  But he cautioned the federal and provincial governments against relying on it for a plan.

"Not to overstate this,"  Sanjayan said, "but a pristine beach like this could quite overnight transform itself into your worst garbage nightmare. Imagine your entire neighbourhood dumped onto this beach, and the people who live here having to clean it up."

While state and local government officials in the U.S. are preparing for that scenario, there appear to be no similar concerns north of the border. B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake told CBC News discussions about preparedness have been ongoing for months, but there’s no cause for a rapid response.

"I think that there's an impression because people want to see armies of people waiting for things to wash up and deal with it," Lake said. "The reality is we're still waiting to know the quantity and quality of the things that will affect us on B.C. shores."

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Environment Canada confirmed there are no "formal plans" for dealing with debris yet, nor has any money been identified to pay for the cleanup,  adding the federal government is involved in ongoing discussions with the province and other levels of government through a Tsunami Debris Coordinating Committee.